There can be fewer more fascinating things than a part-frozen river. The banks are solid with ice, thicker than a hand-span, gleaming silver, white and blue in the winter sun, and great chunks, sometimes six, seven, eight inches thick float in the mid-stream current. They turn over and over again as they travel, with the water churning brown and white around them. The sound of the chunking and chinking of ice rapping against ice was fascinating, natural, sometimes as appealing as the bells of Christmas, at others like something primitive rearing up amidst the trivia of modern life. The floes piled up at the base of the ugly iron bridge that spans the Tweed, the bridge with the traffic lights that so amuses the people of Innerleithen. The space beneath the bridge is dark and hollow, so the noise of water and ice, of ice grinding on ice, and of ice grinding against painted metal, was loud and unknown and slightly unnerving. So must the passengers of Titanic have heard as they observed the far larger bergs sailing serenely in the North Atlantic; so must they have heard as their ship went down. That was a sobering thought on a cold day, but it was not a thought that lasted long.
Much more often we dragged a sledge behind us, with Alex, as tall as his mother, all arms and legs and opinions, sitting on top. Hannah tried to emulate her brother, toddling across the frozen ground in her pink clothes with the tiny red boots slipping and sliding as she exclaimed in wonder at all the new things presented to her by nature. This was a fine path for Hannah, for it was here that she sat her first sledge, as we guided her from the road to the path down the steep, narrow, bumpy slope lined with the brittle plants of winter. It was here that she learned to ride her first bicycle, swaying along with now one and now the other of her stabiliser wheels on the ground as she bucked and faltered and grew in confidence. It was here that she saw her first river monster.
It was not a real monster, of course, but I was not sure what it was then, and I am still not sure now. It was an autumn evening, with the western sky already tinged red and the hills all around outlined stark and mysterious, when we were wandering by the river. Sometimes we saw a heron here, either standing fishing near the bank, or flapping slow and silent along her own stretch of the river ‘on patrol’ as Cathy would say. Ducks, of course, were commonplace for Tweed is a notable home for them; so our children grew up watching families of fluffy ducklings mature along the riverside. There were swans too, sometimes, swimming serenely with their brood of cygnets, queen and king of the river. And there were fish.
Near to the bank minnows congregated in shoals hundreds strong. After a while we knew where to look to find them, so the hunting became routine, the once unexpected now taken for granted. I presume that these small fry were near the bottom of the food chain, but we still felt sympathy for them when we saw the ducks feeding. They had been among the first living things we had found in the river and for that reason they were special. Trout were different; they were mysterious, exotic and always unexpected.
We often saw the trout jumping after flies; one minute the river was quiet and serene, then there would be an eruption, a flash of silver followed by a splash and then only ripples as the fish vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Most of the time we only caught the leap from the side of our eyes, so that before we could turn the incident was finished; another fly had been eaten and the trout was safely back home beneath the water. That is something to remember when we feel sympathy for trout that are caught by the anglers; they too are only a part of the food chain. Eating or being eaten is part of nature, and trout are notable hunters in their own right. A few years ago there was the case of a couple of fish tanks; one contained a single trout, the other a group of piranhas, the renowned savage man-eating fish of South America. While they were unattended the trout jumped into the adjoining tank and ate three of the piranhas. Like most Borderers, they are well able to take care of themselves.
That autumn evening, however, we had seen neither ducks nor swans nor jumping fish, but it was still a pleasant walk by the river. We were about to turn back when, on the opposite bank, we saw something moving. ‘It’s a monster’ Hannah claimed, for she was just at the right age of identify such things. At this point Tweed is perhaps fifty yards across, but the light was fading and the creature was half-hidden among the tall grass, reeds and foliage that line the bank. Crouching down so that we were not immediately recognisable, we waited for it to reappear, which, eventually, it did.
It was a brownish animal, although Cathy thought it was black, and we watched it for a good ten minutes as it slid into the water and paddled along for a while, then slipped back onto the bank. It stopped frequently to investigate whatever took its fancy, occasionally dived beneath the surface of the water. I thought it was an otter, Cathy thought it might be a mink, Thomas swore it was a large rat and Hannah knew that it was a river monster. I still do not know, but Jim Penrith, who knows about such things, told me that it was more likely a mink although there are otters in the river between Peebles and Innerleithen. It was only when I was writing this piece that I recalled the legend of the spirit of the Tweed. If the ancient, superstitious people had seen such a creature in the half-dark, as we did, they could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the spirit of the Tweed was indeed tangible, a living thing that roamed the banks in search of a victim.